July 01, 2009

Getting Teens to Air Their Questions

Written By Cary Schmidt

How an Honest Q&A Time Can Help Your Students

This week we’ve been at teen camp with 275 of our teens from LBC. It’s been a great week! One of my favorite aspects of camp is something we instituted a few years ago called “Answers to Tough Questions.” It’s a one hour Q&A time before dinner. I can’t believe how the kids enjoy this time, and I thought it might be helpful to share the idea with others who could find it beneficial.

Students have a lot of questions—and most of them never get asked. They just hold them inside, often afraid they will be condemned for even having a question.  Sadly, the questions and often the conclusions they draw are based on faulty information—immaturity, skewed perspective, fallible logic, or just bad assumptions. We have found that the teens really open up to this Q&A time! They ask deep, sincere, and well-thought questions. Actually, I’m always amazed and deeply impacted by the questions they ask. My burden for teens greatly increases when I get a glimpse of what’s really on their minds through their questions.

If you haven’t noticed lately, the “because I said so” approach doesn’t work with teens. This Q&A time creates an hour where the teens are given the opportunity to “set the agenda.” Here are a few thoughts:

Why Teens Don’t Ask Questions:

1. Fear of Rejection—they are simply afraid that their question will ostracize them somehow.

2. Fear of Retribution—they are afraid that their question will bring some sort of repercussions or mistreatment. They often believe you will think less of them for asking.

3. Fear of Transparency—they are afraid of being misunderstood by exposing their inner thoughts.

The Format of a Q&A Time

1. Pass out blank question cards ahead of time—our card simply has two sections. One section says, “I would like to talk about this topic. And one section says, “I would like to ask this question.”

2. Ask the teens to fill them out and turn them in—all through a camp week, young people hand me blue cards folded in half with their questions on them. They know it’s an open invitation all week long. This provokes more thought and more good questions as the week progresses.

3. Take time to sort the questions into similar topics—A lot of the questions will be similar. Sorting them gives you the chance to prepare and sift out the questions you may not address.

4. Address the questions that God leads you to address—With some questions you might invite a teen to speak with you privately. But most questions you can answer in a group setting. We have found that if one teen asks a question, many others probably have the same question.

How to Get to Their Hearts:

1. Allow anonymous questions—this is HUGE! Anonymity is the key to getting honest questions. Teens should be allowed to place their name on their card, but not required to. Give them a chance to express their true heart.

2. Allow any appropriate question—don’t set the agenda. Don’t be afraid to deal with tough subjects, and don’t be afraid to admit if you need to study something and come back later. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “You know, that’s a really great question that I never really thought of. Let me look into it and get back to that one.”

3. Don’t let their attitude bother you—some questions will be written with an attitude—like “Why do you think the good kids are so perfect?” Some questions might even be personally offensive to you—like “Why do you plan such stupid activities?” Don’t fire back. Play fair and give an honest question an honest and kind answer. You might even offer for the questioner to come to you personally and share more about the question at a later time.

4. Use logic instead of lecture—I love to preach and teach, but this forum is not the place for it. This is more like an open-hearted fireside chat. If you start lecturing, they will turn you off. Talk openly and help them reason toward biblical conclusions.

5. Point every answer back to a biblical principle—don’t just give philosophy or ideas. Get to Scripture and help them form their answers through the application of biblical principles. Reason them through biblical principles and explain how the principles apply to their question.

6. See deeper than the question—See the heart behind the question. I learn more about our teens through their questions than any other single thing. The question exposes the heart. Questions often expose false assumptions, skewed perspectives, unmet expectations, and spiritual immaturity. Questions let you know where your group is and where you really stand with them. From that objective reality, you can minister more effectively.

What Not to Do:

1. Don’t try to answer questions without preparation—I want to scream “Danger, Will Robinson!!! Danger!! Danger!!” If you try to wing this, you will say something you regret. Give yourself time to review the questions and prepare solid answers.

2. Don’t belittle a teen for his question—your natural response to some of the questions will be “how stupid.” But whatever you do, don’t show that emotion. Respect every question and remember it probably comes from a very sincere heart that took a risk to ask!

3. Don’t venture beyond your authority or experience—Don’t answer questions that should be answered by parents or pastor. Get your pastor’s counsel on topics he may or may not want you to deal with. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I would defer that question to your parents or to pastor…”

4. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say if parents or pastor were present—The teens will quote you! Worse, they will misquote you! So you’d better be backed by the Bible and prepared to give account for the answers you provide.

5. Don’t do this too often—Q&A times will lose their punch if they happen every week or too frequently. We do this two times each year–at camp and at a winter retreat. Occasionally I will handle a question during a Bible study, but for the most part, these times are effective because the teens look forward to them.

I hope these thoughts encourage you to get into the hearts of your students. Our kids do think deeply about their faith. They see a lot of perceived inconsistencies. They have a lot of unanswered issues. And they wrestle with these things. Hosting a Q&A time allows their wrestling match to come to an end on sound biblical principles. Answering questions is like removing roadblocks and paving the way for an open response to Bible teaching and preaching.

Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul received and answered questions—even those asked in a wrong spirit. Questions are powerful open doors to the heart—step through those doors with God’s Word.

In another post, I’m going to share some of the amazing questions our teens ask. What experiences have you had with Q&A in your own youth group? Post a comment and share your thoughts.